Von der Leyen backs Dutch FM Hoekstra for EU climate post

Hoekstra may not face an easy ride during the confirmation process as he has ruffled many feathers in southern Europe (Ranu Abhelakh)
Hoekstra may not face an easy ride during the confirmation process as he has ruffled many feathers in southern Europe (Ranu Abhelakh)

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday backed Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra to take up a vacant climate post on the European Commission, but the choice raised concerns about the bloc's environmental ambitions.

The commission president announced that she had interviewed Hoekstra and would now propose that EU member states and the European Parliament formally approve the 47-year-old Christian Democrat's candidacy.

"Mr Hoekstra showed strong motivation for the post and great commitment to the European Union. He also has relevant professional experience for this post," von der Leyen said in a statement.

The Dutch government nominated Hoekstra for the commission last week, after the Netherlands' previous commissioner Frans Timmermans stepped down to return to national politics.

Timmermans had been a powerful executive vice president on the commission, in charge of overseeing the ambitious climate pact known as the European Green Deal.

That job has passed to Slovakia's commissioner Maros Sefcovic, but von der Leyen said the Dutch conservative could serve under him as the official in charge of "climate action".

"His governmental experience will be a strong asset in particular for Europe's climate diplomacy in the run-up to COP28 and for climate finance," she said.

A former Shell employee and ex-partner at global consultancy giant McKinsey, Hoekstra was appointed as finance minister to serve in Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's third coalition government in 2017, before becoming foreign minister in 2022.

If approved by MEPs and member state leaders, Hoekstra would serve until at least May next year, when a new commission will be built after the European Parliament elections.

He may not face an easy ride during the confirmation process, however, as the hawkish Dutch foreign minister ruffled many feathers in southern Europe in his previous role at the finance ministry.

Italy and Greece were offended by his tough stance on fiscal discipline, and Portugal was outraged when he suggested that southern countries should have saved more before the Covid-19 pandemic.

- 'Not a done deal' -

He can expect tough questioning from the left and from Mediterranean MEPs but von der Leyen, a fellow right-winger, defended his stance on the need for action on climate -- the core of his new brief.

Pascal Canfin, a French centrist MEP, said Hoekstra's confirmation was "not a done deal as he needs to be confirmed by a 2/3 majority of the coordinators of the environment committee", which Canfin chairs.

"Facing climate change has been at the centre of the EU's action for the last past years, and it should remain so," Canfin said in a statement.

"He will have to prove that he is the right man to keep on delivering this high level of ambition."

The powerful left-wing Socialist and Democrats political group within the EU parliament that Timmermans belonged to promised Hoekstra would face a "tough" hearing.

Jagoda Munic, director of NGO Friends of the Earth Europe, criticised the choice of Hoekstra, saying he was "not fit for the job".

"Wopke Hoekstra has no track record on championing climate... Appointing a former Shell employee to lead Europe's climate policy when we're in a climate crisis fired by the fossil fuel industry is an appalling message to send," Munic told AFP.

- 'Ambitions undiluted' -

The Green Deal has faced growing resistance, with some EU member states and right-wing MEPs calling for a "pause" in environmental legislation.

Sefcovic, now leading on the climate pact, vowed the EU was "not going to dilute our ambitions" and said he hoped environmental laws including a proposal on pesticides would be adopted before the end of the commission's mandate in 2024.

The EU has set a target to become a "climate neutral" economy by 2050, with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Sefcovic told journalists Tuesday that Brussels would "intensify communication with citizens and with our industry", to enable greater access to funding because "no one should be left behind".

The aim was to deliver jobs and growth, he said, and send a "clear signal that we are fighting for our industry and that we want our industry to be a leader in global terms when it comes to green tech, clean tech and all energy efficiency technologies".